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April 8, 2020

Another Look at Babylon

John D. Beckett • Theology of Work
In my late twenties, I began a business pilgrimage to make a connection between faith and work. Thirty-five years later I'm still learning just how challenging this is. The tendency to bifurcate my worlds has been unrelenting - to be one person away from work, especially on Sunday, and another at work. It's a bit like sitting next to the congenial guy at the coffee shop who turns into a maniac moments later on the freeway. Context can mean everything!

 Seven habits that will encourage God's favor


Each day, the news seems to bring fresh reports of moral failure at the highest levels of business.  Beginning with Enron, once mighty companies have fallen or are reeling like a boxer on the ropes.


It seems to have happened so fast.


If we were to ask the tens of thousands who have lost their jobs, or all those who saw blue-chip investments crumble, they would say the public scorn for the top execs of these companies is well deserved.  Trust has been broken, and we feel we've been violated.


But every tragedy has embedded within it lessons that we need to learn. As readers of Business Reform (a very significant title for these economic times) we might ask, what is the message of Enron?  How should we be thinking differently about work?  What steps can we take as committed Christians to "reform business," or at least the small slice with which we interface?


My Business Journey in a Nutshell


In my late twenties, I began a business pilgrimage to make a connection between faith and work.  Thirty-five years later I'm still learning just how challenging this is.  The tendency to bifurcate my worlds has been unrelenting - to be one person away from work, especially on Sunday, and another at work.  It's a bit like sitting next to the congenial guy at the coffee shop who turns into a maniac moments later on the freeway. Context can mean everything!


Efforts to integrate my worlds of faith and work drew some unintended attention - from an ABC News reporter.  That led to a nationally broadcast interview, which drew the largest positive response of any news piece the network had previously aired.  This confirmed my sense that the Lord was focusing on this topic, so I began writing a book about what I had learned.  In due course, Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul was published, and has now been republished in many foreign translations.  Since, a wonderful window has opened, to see the scale on which God is working around the world to bring business into line with His purposes.  Here and there, under godly leaders, real change is occurring. 


It remains to be seen how much Enron and similar situations will impede or inspire the business reform process.  My sense is that these incidents will force a needed focus on the place of character in business, and that we Christians will have an opportunity to walk out the vision declared in Malachi 3:18: "You will once again see a difference between those who serve the Lord and those who do not."


I am often asked, "How do you go about being different?"  The more I study the scriptures, the more I find practical insights - really the Lord guiding us through His word.  For the balance of this short article, I'd like to focus on a marketplace-oriented scripture, and some lessons learned from it. 


The Fall of Babylon


Revelation 18 describes the fall of Babylon.  Please understand, I'm not saying the modern business world is Babylon.  That's not my point - though in some ways there are sobering parallels.  This chapter describes the sudden and final judgment of this evil, yet luxurious city and the empire it represents. Note the key terms by which it is described:


            □ A dwelling place for demons, a prison for every foul spirit


            □ Excessive in its luxuries, by which the merchants of the
               earth grew rich


            □ Laden with sins, piled up to heaven


            □ Arrogant, "sitting as a queen, unwilling to bend or mourn"


            □ Bodies and souls of men were considered inferior to other


            □ Its merchants led entire nations astray


            □ It despised the prophets and the saints


The Alternative


Please let me take a little liberty with this passage.  If these are the characteristics that invite God's judgment, what might happen if we were to practice just the opposite? Might we find God's blessings?


As I considered this possibility, a pattern of thought and conduct emerged that is comprehensive and practical for leaders in today's business world.  I see these as seven habits that will help us be different in ways that encourage God's favor. 


Invite God's presence.


To counter the oppression of evil spiritual forces, invite God's presence.  Moses was a great leader, in part because he depended on God's presence.  "If Your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here" (Exod. 33:15).  Otherwise, he said, "What else will distinguish me and Your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?"


I have found that we invite God's presence when we defer to Him, ask His counsel and seek His will.  We humbly acknowledge that on our own we will always gravitate toward the flesh and toward sin.  We will miss the mark.  When God's presence manifests, the kinds of demons and foul spirits that infested Babylon become very uncomfortable and leave (often kicking up a fuss on the way out!)  This is often the point where breakthroughs come and lives are changed.


Be modest in lifestyle and material accumulation.


Babylon's merchants had become steeped in excessive luxury.  In contrast, I am convicted each time I consider Jesus' modesty.  He said, "Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it.  For the pagan world runs after all such things" (Luke 12:29,30).  Jesus modeled what He taught: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head" (Matt. 8:20).


Recently I read about a prominent CEO whose retirement contract calls for an ongoing consulting relationship under which his former employer pays him $86,000 for five days of work a year - this on top of the use of cars, airplanes, use of a corporate apartment, stock options, etc.  The Wall St. Journal asks, "He couldn't offer free advice if his successor called?" (WSJ 9/10/02)  He's not alone.  The excesses in large companies are so glaring that the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve recently asked companies to scale back the incredible pay packages for their top execs.


One idea:  some CEOs put a cap, in the form of a multiplier of say 10 or 20 times, on what they earn relative to the lowest paid person in their organization.  For the right kind of exec this should be sufficient.


Keep short accounts where there is known sin.


The Babylonians were laden with sins, piled up to heaven.  They ignored a life-giving option well known to King David, a model in godly leadership.  David's heart was so right with God that his life became the standard by which every subsequent leader of Israel was measured.  Yet there was a point in his life when he sinned with Bathsheba, then arranging for the murder of Uriah, her husband.  When confronted, David did not come up with excuses, but said to Nathan the prophet, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam. 12:13).  Though David and his family paid dearly for this transgression, God honored him beyond any who ever led Israel.


Have you noticed how difficult it is for those in leadership to admit mistakes?  For example, I wonder if President Nixon would have been forced out of office if he had come forth, as David did, and said, "I have sinned."  But pride gets in the way.  We choke over the words, "I was wrong."  Yet one of the greatest truths of the Christian walk is that we can confess our sins, be forgiven and reestablish our relationship with God.  This also applies with one another.  I have found that actively seeking and granting forgiveness can be the single greatest means to transforming damaged relationships.


Be humble.


The Babylonians boasted in their hearts, "I sit as a queen."  Compare this with the humility of the Apostle Paul who profoundly influenced the life of the early church and each generation since.  Though he had every reason to be proud, he said in his farewell to the Ephesian elders, "I served the Lord with great humility and with tears" (Acts 20:19).  Humility is the foremost test of a truly great person or leader - and a prerequisite for honor (Prov. 15:33), for grace (Prov. 3:34) and for God to lift us up in due time (1 Pet. 5:6).  The Bible instructs us to humble ourselves.  We are to take the initiative.  As a friend pointed out, if we do not humble ourselves, it may be necessary for God to humiliate us.  Is that not happening to many leading CEOs today?


Humility is a hidden asset in modern business, though it is not the typically held view.  Jim Collins, author of an exhaustive study on what enables companies to transition from "good to great," notes the compelling modesty of successful leaders: "We were struck by how the good-to-great leaders didn't talk about themselves.It wasn't just false modesty.  Those who worked with or wrote about (them) continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated." (Jim Collins, Good to Great).


Value people deeply.


When Babylon is judged and falls, the merchants will weep and mourn because no one buys their cargoes any more.  The cargo list is instructive.  Of greatest perceived value are gold, silver, precious stones and pearls - on down the list.  Dead last - after cattle, sheep, horses and carriages - are the bodies and souls of men!  In stark contrast, the Bible places the highest value on the person, for each of us is created by God in His very own likeness and image (Gen. 1:27).  What amazing dignity He bestowed on us!


I have yet to see a company that is successful over the long run which devalues people.  In our own companies we identify three core values:  Integrity, Excellence and A Profound Respect for the Individual.  Of these, profound respect is absolutely critical, influencing the other two, and everything else we do.  One example:  we keep the size of our business units under 250 people so we are able to know them personally, get acquainted with their families, and help them in their individual development.


View a leader's influence as a trust.


In Babylon, merchants led entire nations astray.  Such was their power and influence. Many of today's leaders have that kind of influence.  For example, some large companies have greater wealth than the countries in which they operate.  While there are myriad definitions of leadership, one that comes closest to the mark for me is simply, "leadership is influence."


If leaders operating under the wrong spirit can lead nations astray, they can certainly influence them for good.  For example, the gospel made its entrance into Europe through a businesswoman, Lydia, a "seller of purple" in Macedonia.  William Wilberforce, who profoundly influenced Great Britain in the 18th Century, "believed deeply in the power of ideas and moral beliefs to change culture through a campaign of sustained public persuasion" (Os Guinness, Character Counts).


When corporate leaders violate the leadership trust they've been given through greed, immorality or dishonesty, they squander the great influence they could have.  We need to encourage and pray for leaders, that they would walk righteously and use their "bully pulpits" to instigate needed change in their communities and in the nation.


Welcome those God sends to us.


The final indictment of Babylon was her treatment of the prophets and saints.  They were the voice of conscience but their message was systematically stilled.  In contrast, prophets had access to such great leaders as King David, who counted mightily on the prophetic wisdom and counsel of Nathan and Gad.  You might ask, who has God sent into my life to bring prophetic insights?  For me, my wife Wendy has been primary in that role.  Sometimes her loving honesty makes me wince, but I deeply respect her for it.


Likewise, the Lord sends us His saints.  I've observed that God has placed choice servants of His in the business world.  They are there by a calling that has the same intensity as a direct calling to "the ministry."  The wise leader will seek out and associate with people who are earnestly following the Lord, for in them and through them will come the counsel, the moral conviction, the work ethic and the perseverance to help the organization prosper.




Recently, Richard Tedlow, a business professor at the Harvard Business School observed that confidence in America's business leaders is lower than at any time since the Great Depression.  Sadly, we bring this kind of judgment on ourselves when we indulge the spirit of Babylon.  Ultimately, the whole Babylonian system will be judged in the harshest possible ways.


In today's challenging business environment God is giving opportunity for those whom He has called into business to bring reform, first by having their own lives right before God, then using the leadership trust they've been given to be a godly influence.  The lessons of Babylon can be a valuable guide.  As we see the nature of their transgressions, and consider how they brought God's judgments, we can systematically and purposefully set out to do just the opposite.

  John D. Beckett    All rights reserved


For more on this topic read John Beckett's book, Loving Monday. Click on Faith and Work Resources.com link to the right of this page.




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